I’ve begun to plan a long-distance road trip for April that I’m not quite ready to reveal to the Twelve Mile Circle audience. However, offering just a hint, I noticed an oddly named town in Indiana called French Lick. It fell remarkably close to Santa Claus, the subject of one of the earliest articles on this site. I figured the fine people of Indiana must have a sense of humor.
French Lick Springs. Photo by Dan Perry on Flickr (cc)
The named sounded familiar for some reason. Once I looked it up I knew immediately why I’d heard it before. Basketball legend Larry Bird grew up in French Lick. They even named a street after him there. Nonetheless, this being 12MC, the more fascinating tangent seemed to be the name of the town itself.
I figured the Lick part probably came from a nearby salt lick somewhere. Indeed, that seemed to be the case as I researched it further. Bison herds roamed this area in the days before people of European descent started pushing over the Appalachian Mountains and paddling through the Mississippi watershed. Bison and other animals gathered at these natural licks to literally lick the ground for essential mineral nutrients. It didn’t take long for the newcomers to decimate local bison populations: "The last historical account of killing a buffalo east of the Mississippi occurred in 1830 at French Lick, Indiana."
The French part seemed more problematic. No definite French population settled at French Lick although the general vicinity fell within French control for awhile. Later American settlers just thought it sounded plausible that the French must have lived at that particular spot. An entrepreneur applied French Lick to a resort he opened at the lick — mineral spas being quite popular at the time — and the name stuck. The spa continues to exist today (map).
Licks of Kentucky
Place Names Ending in Lick
There seemed to be a definite time and place for the word Lick to be appended to towns. The names were applied during a period when people still remembered that Bison once roamed east of the Mississippi River. That seemed to coincide with the early to middle Nineteenth Century. Licks clustered in places such as Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia, and especially Kentucky. I found a bunch of Kentucky place names in the Geographic Names Information System. There, all sorts of specific Licks existed: Bank; Bee; Blue; Deer; Flat; Grants; Grassy; Knob; Lees; Log; Mays; Mud; North; Paint; Rock; Salt; Slate; Sulfur; Wolf. I never did learn why they seemed to concentrate so predominantly in Kentucky.
The biggest of those Kentucky places appeared to be the town of Salt Lick (map). Pioneers were drawn there originally by abundant game that gathered at the local licks. One early account claimed that hunters once spotted 500 bison there. The animals left long ago although their legacy survived in the name of a town where several hundred people still lived.
Appending the word Lick to various place names seemed pretty unique to this region, too. I found only minor geographic references anywhere else in the world, and certainly none included town names.
Big Bone Lick
big bone lick state park. Photo by Joel on Flickr (cc)
Every once in awhile 12MC resorts to Beavis and Butt-Head behavior. Please forgive me. It might be best to jump entirely to the next topic. Nonetheless, I felt that I should note the existence of Big Bone Lick, a State Historic Site in Kentucky (map). It’s on Beaver Road. Seriously.
Actually it sounded like a really fascinating place, and something right in my area of interest. It’s called the "Birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology." An ancient mineral lick drew megafauna including mammoths. However, the lick occupied a rather marshy area and large animals sometimes got stuck. They died there and their bones remained in the muck waiting to be discovered several thousand years later. Settlers came to the area and saw those big bones so they named their nearby town Big Bone. It seemed logical enough. The unfortunate situation met by those ancient animals reminded me of the Mammoth Site in South Dakota that I visited a couple of years ago. I’ll need to keep Big Bone on my list of places to see someday.
Young Lick Knob
Young Lick viewed from Brasstown Bald via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
A mountain in Georgia’s Appalachian region bore the name Young Lick, reaching an elevation of 3,780 feet (1152 metres) (map). Hikers on the nearby Appalachian Trail could reach its summit –the knob — with just a minor detour. SummitPost described it as "a mellow hump along the ridgeline forming the Tennessee Valley Divide."
That’s not what made it special, though. It marked the tripoint for Habersham, Rabun and Towns counties. It also marked a triple divide for Eastern Continental Divide watersheds. Water flowed to the Atlantic via the Savannah River. In another direction it flowed directly towards the the Gulf of Mexico. A final option also flowed to the Gulf, taking a circuitous route through the Mississippi River watershed instead.
If that wasn’t motivation enough, it’s located near Hellhole Mountain.
Something needed to be done about the clutter. My list of potential topics grew to unmanageable proportions once again so I decided to keep pruning. I discovered an island theme as I sorted through the pile so I lumped a few items together. Nothing much unified them except that they involved islands with unusual twists. Twelve Mile Circle didn’t really need any more than that to get things going.
Lord Howe Island Group
Lord Howe Lagoon. Photo by David Stanley on Flickr (cc)
My mental island journey began with the Lord Howe Island Group first (map). They sat within the Tasman Sea off of the eastern coast of Australia, unknown until spotted by Henry Lidgbird Ball in 1788 as he sailed towards Norfolk Island to establish a penal colony. He named the tallest of the islands, a jagged volcanic peak rising mightily into the sky, Ball’s Pyramid. He named one of the more dramatic peaks on the main island Mount Lidgbird. His legacy secured, he decided to suck-up to his superior by naming the main island after Lord Howe. Richard Howe, First Earl Howe, was the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time.
Ball claimed the island group for Britain. Whalers began using it as a convenient place to replenish provisions. A permanent settlement followed soon thereafter. The group became part of Australia as that nation formed. It’s now an unincorporated area of New South Wales. Few people live there though — only 360 residents as of the 2011 Census — and the government limits tourism because of the fragile ecosystem of such a small place. Given that, a maximum of about 800 people occupy the space at any given time.
The Twist: Lord Howe Island made a credible claim to being located within the world’s least populated time zone. This island group uniquely occupied Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) +10.5. Fewer than a thousand people ever set their watches to observe this time zone at any given moment. That contrasted with UTC +8 (the one with China) with a population of 1.7 billion.
Lindeman Islands & Smith Islands NP. Photo by portengaround on Flickr (cc)
I remained in Australia momentarily, focusing on the coast of Queensland near Mackay. There I found the Smith Islands (map), the site of a national park of the same name. Those unspoiled islands offered very few amenities other than their natural beauty. People traveled there by boat, private or charter, for fishing, diving and wildlife excursions. They needed to be self-reliant during these excursions. Visitors might be completely isolated with little help available anywhere around them should any difficulties arise. Nonetheless, the park attracted a certain type of adventurer who relished unspoiled experiences and abundant solitude.
The Twist: While I never discovered who named the islands or how they chose the theme, they did follow a consistent pattern. Imagine every kind of smith — skilled metal workers — and it had its own island named for it. I saw Ladysmith, Blacksmith, Silversmith, Coppersmith, Goldsmith, Anchorsmith and Tinsmith. Some readers may remember the 12MC article I called Ladysmith, and yes that’s how I found this island group. I liked Blacksmith Island most of all, however. Nearby stood Hammer Island, Anvil Reef, Forge Reef and Pincer Island, enough tools to create an entire blacksmith shop. Other features figured into the general theme as well, including Ingot Island and Bullion Rocks.
Ada-Kaleh on Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain
Ada Kaleh experienced a convoluted history. This small island sat in the Danube River between modern-day Romania and Serbia, just downstream from Orșova (map). It became a strategic point along the river, a place taken and retaken repeatedly by the Austrian and Ottoman empires starting in the 17th Century. The name of the island itself came from a Turkish word, Adakale, meaning Island Fortress.
The real weirdness started in 1878 when the Ottomans lost control of the surrounding area as a result of losing the Russo-Turkish War. Everyone just sort-of forgot about Ada Kaleh during the peace talks so it became a Turkish exclave. It transformed into something of a lawless territory, a haven for smuggling and other nefarious activities. The situation remained that way for about a half-century when another treaty corrected the error. However, even afterwards it retained its distinct Turkish attributes and culture even though if fell within the physical confines of Romania.
The Twist: Ada Kaleh no longer exists. The waters of the Danube rose considerably along this stretch of the river after construction of the Iron Gates Dam in 1972. Most of the island’s residents chose to relocate to Turkey rather than remain in Romania.
Isle of Dogs
Isle of Dogs, London, United Kingdom. Photo by Alvin Leong on Flickr (cc)
In east London the River Thames took quite a curve, enclosing a small area on three sides (map). Technically this wasn’t an island at all so it probably shouldn’t even be on my list. I found it while Marking the Meridian. The Isle of Dogs wasn’t that distant from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and the meridian came oh-so-close to crossing through it. Despite its name, somehow it attracted commercial enterprises in the modern era particularly for banking and finance.
The Twist: Well, other than the fact that it wasn’t actually an island, nobody knew how it became the Isle of Dogs. East London History said,
The original name for the island was Stepney Marsh or Stebunheath. It is thought that the Isle of Dogs name originated in the 16th century. Nobody really knows where this name came from, but there are plenty of theories. Some say that the name was given to the area because of the number of dead dogs that washed up on its banks. Others think that the modern name is a variation of other names given to the area, such as the Isle of Dykes or the Isle of Ducks.
Dogs or Dykes or Ducks (or others). Take your pick.
It adorned a cliff on the Maryland side of the Potomac River across from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (map). I’d seen it dozens of times over the years, a constant presence as I toured the town or rode my bike along the C&O Canal Trail. Its smoothed painted surface cracked over the years, the letters faded, and I never could tell exactly what it said from a distance. I’d seen a Ghost Sign.
Harpers Ferry Ghost Sign. My own photo
This type of advertising used to be quite common as the 19th Century crossed into the 20th. Nobody thought twice about slapping some pigment on a wall, a barn, or in the case of Harpers Ferry, upon nature itself. This unknown author chose a prime spot on an outcrop known as Maryland Heights, scaling down the precarious ledge to apply his commercial message. Back during the Civil War, Union and Confederate forces both occupied the heights at various times, ringing it with artillery. They wanted to control the highest point of elevation above a key town at a major river confluence. An advertiser claimed those same heights a generation later although for a peaceful purpose.
From her house on High Street in 1906, Clara Riley watched as sign painters created a huge advertisement, out of a milk and whitewash mixture, on the side of the mountain. Mrs. Riley remembered the year because she was in labor with her first child while the sign was being painted.
The sign could be seen practically everywhere in Harpers Ferry. More importantly, everyone riding a train on a heavily traveled railroad line saw an advertisement for "Mennen’s Borated Talcum Toilet Powder" just as they entered a tunnel directly below the sign. That’s what it said, as I learned.
Mennen’s Borated Talcum Toilet Powder
Mennen’s Borated Talcum Toilet Powder, 1898
on Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
Apparently people in an earlier era liked to purchase a tongue-twister of a product called Borated Talcum Toilet Powder. I think it lost some of the superfluous wording later and simply became Talcum Powder. Meanwhile, the Mennen brand continued to exist, now owned by Colgate-Palmolive. In recent years they made a popular deodorant called Mennen Speed Stick. Then in the early 1990’s they practically sparked an entire musical genre when they marketed a deodorant to teenage girls called Teen Spirit. Smells Like Teen Spirit!
A Ghostly Phenomenon
Butte Ghost Sign VI. Photo by Rex Brown on Flickr (cc)
Frankly, I hadn’t paid much attention to Ghost Signs. I’m not even sure how the subject popped into my mind for a Twelve Mile Circle article. Other people took it very seriously, though. They fixated on it with the same intensity as my obsession with county counting. I could respect that. After all, these signs became the subject of a popular website, a Twitter account with more than 5,000 followers, and a Flickr group with more than 30,000 images. The popular press also expressed an interest, for example in articles from The Guardian and The Independent. Ghost signs completely eclipsed my humble efforts on 12MC.
Clearly something in those signs sparked such intense devotion. They acted as connections to earlier times, fading a little bit further as each year passed. They were survivors. However, ghost signs also seemed ephemeral, like on any given day someone might return to find their favorite sign gone. A nostalgia formed around them. Some have been fortunate and have been saved from destruction as cherished historical artifacts. Many more will disappear. I know that I’ll keep a better eye out for them now that I’m tuned in to the phenomenon.
For instance, I’ll stay on the lookout for the Lincoln Hotel and Butte Special Beer sign on Park Street (map) if I’m ever in Butte, Montana.
Black Cat, Dingley Road. Photo by Caroline on Flickr (cc)
The name Sam Roberts came up often as I researched ghost signs. He, apparently, began cataloguing them worldwide about a decade ago from his base in London. Often he listed his favorite example as the sign for Black Cat Cigarettes on London’s Dingley Road (map). Regrettably, he reported the loss of that mural in September 2016, covered up by a new building constructed next to it. Another wonderful ghost sign lost.